Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Stand With President Obama

There’s a peckin’ party going on, and we’ve all joined in.  If you don’t know, the term refers literally to a tendency of chickens to go after a spot of blood on another chicken until they have all pecked that chicken to death.  I’m using the term politically.

There’s a peckin’ party going on, and we’ve all joined in, ironically because of our own best instincts.  See, your average liberal, like me, is so concerned about being fair and open minded, that he or she is generous in heaping the criticisms on his or her own.

Meanwhile, the political right sits back gleefully and watches, occasionally sprinkling President Barack Obama with another drop of blood.

That’s right, we, us, the self-proclaimed good guys, are pecking President Obama to death:

He’s not environmental enough!

He’s not pro-gay enough!

He’s not black enough!

He’s too pro-Wall Street or, wait, is he not pro-Wall Street enough?  I forget!

He didn’t get what I want into the health care bill!

He won’t stop the war in Afghanistan!

He didn’t close Guantanamo yet!

His finance reform doesn’t go far enough!

He takes vacations!

He………………

Jesus Christ!  Enough. 

Every four years, we all drink the idealistic Kool-Aid.  The next president is going to change everything, he’s going to fix our ills, restore our moral compass, strengthen our standing in the world, be the Second Coming.  Etc.  Or she.  Oh, yes, we sip it at first, cautiously, but as the election nears, we gulp it.  Even if it’s being poured by dull statesmen like Al Gore (would you give a massage to this guy?) or John Kerry.

But something special happened this time.  We got what we wanted.  Our ideal candidate, perfectly reshapen by each of us into the image that we, individually, wanted him to have.  He was John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Julius Erving, and Ward Cleaver all rolled into one.

But still, two realities, well, three, need to kick in now, if they haven’t already.  First, the man can’t do everything that he said he was going to do in exactly the way that you want him to do it.  That’s not intended to let him off the hook on campaign promises; indeed, there are some he has not fulfilled. Instead, I’d point out that every person who latches onto every campaign promise and thinks that the one he or she considers most important will get top priority is in for a big disappointment.

Second, in this age I’m beginning to call the “Too Much Information, Too Little Sense” Age, for every step a president takes, there are plenty of people who think they know what they are talking about and might who are arguing passionately that he should do the exact opposite.  Sometimes this occurs because of powerful, philosophical differences; sometimes, it’s simply politics. If we only join in on the chatter once in awhile, we will only hear the loudest voices, and the loudest voices at any given time, I guarantee you, are going to be focused on what’s going wrong and who’s to blame for it.

And, finally, I’m certainly not trying to stir up any kind of pity for Obama—he got the job he wanted.  But it’s a damn complicated job, and as far as I can tell, he has the right demeanor and intellect to handle that complexity. 

I stand with President Obama.

I know his approval ratings are down.  I don’t care about that.  While polling may accurately reflect the mood of the people, it cannot capture the complexity of the modern world.  If you’ve heard there’s oil gushing, if you don’t have a job, if your 401k is tanking, hell, if you’ve got to go cut the grass, you’re going to give the man a potentially negative report.  Even if the poll asks you pointed questions in several areas of the president’s performance, I don’t think it can get to the heart the matter.  It’s like asking your family to rate your cooking based on the last meal you cooked—burn last night’s casserole and they want to head to Panera.

I tend to think of a president’s work as more like a game of darts.  You hope to put the darts exactly where you want them to get the highest score first.  But, ultimately, the more darts you can get on the board, the better chance you’ve got of scoring.  I know, I know, the metaphor doesn’t quite work. Obama’s got a lot of darts on the board.  While Pundit A pontificates about how he would have handled the spill differently, the sole issue he will harp on for days if not weeks, Obama is expanding internet speed and access, trying to give guidance to other countries at the G8, pushing through another balanced nominee toward Supreme Court confirmation, promoting health care reform, backing off on Guantanamo, networking for a Financial Reform bill, and, yeah, playing a round or two of golf.

Underlying the current criticism of Obama, I believe, is the growing unease that we ain’t the country we once were.  Obama is trying to adapt us to that reality, so that we can retool our infrastructure—in business, energy, our approach to the environment, our dealings with each other and the world.  But so many voices out there that feel the old America slipping away, rather than do something about it, are looking for someone to blame, believing against all logic that the decline started in the last 18 months.  If, indeed, we are to regain our standing and our clout, it won't be by continuing to do things the way they are being done.  Above all, that's what I think Obama understands.  

Meanwhile, the right-wing are doing their darndest to make Obama into the next Jimmy Carter, and they get a good chuckle everytime we help.  Do you really want to be a part of that?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Weak Parent Sauce and the System That Slurps It Down

Like Whoa - Aly & AJ (mp3)
Who Will Comfort Me - Melody Gardot (mp3)

Please read the following very carefully:

     The girl’s parents, wild with outrage and fear, showed the principal the text messages: a dozen shocking, sexually explicit threats, sent to their daughter the previous Saturday night from the cellphone of a 12-year-old boy. Both children were sixth graders at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J.
     Punish him, insisted the parents.
     “I said, ‘This occurred out of school, on a weekend,’ ” recalled the principal, Tony Orsini. “We can’t discipline him.”
     Had they contacted the boy’s family, he asked.
     Too awkward, they replied. The fathers coach sports together.


The New York Times article goes on to explain and explore the very delicate legal challenge facing (public) schools when it comes to cyberbullying, and it's a very good read. But I can't get past these first eight sentences, because they ultimately explain exactly why we're in this pickle to begin with.

Many parents, myself included, will literally go to the mat for our children during an intense sporting event. When we see them wronged, we get angry. When we see an act of intentional viciousness -- even if it's not directed at our child -- we will get vociferous, and sometimes arguments or worse will ensue.

But when we see that some young punk has been sending our daughter sexually-explicit and unwelcome text messages? We go crying to... well, I'd say "Mommy & Daddy," but we're s'posed to be Mommy and Daddy!

Even more pathetic is the excuse listed above. The father in question doesn't want to upset his coaching relationship with this other dad. The guy probably coaches a mean offensive line, or maybe he hits grounders like a mofo. Anyway, clearly the relationship on the athletic surface is far too important to risk by informing this other guy that his son is sending X-rated Buffalo Bill "it rubs the lotion on its skin" shit via cell phone to sixth-grade girls.

That these parents are pathetic, weak and utterly focused on the wrong things doesn't make the problem for schools easier. We can acknowledge the idiotic parenting strategies that explain away almost every problem we see in children, but none of that seems to let schools, teachers, or administrators off the hook for trying to solve these problems. Educators, whether we like it or not, spend more time with kids than most parents. Far too often, educators know kids better than parents. Many times, kids feel closer to and are more likely to heed the words of a teacher. None of this is right; none of it should be OK with us; but, as they say, it is what it is.

Every year, some dozen or so parents call our middle school administrators to complain about their own children's hair. "Please make my son get a haircut," these parents will say.

"But... you're his parent..." our Middle School head will say.

"Yes, but he might listen to you. If he knows he'll get in trouble at school, he might be willing to do it."

I'm not making this shit up. We have parents who have, apparently, castrated themselves without even knowing it. Parenta castrata.

How sad must it be, as a child, to grow up in a house where parents are so weak and pointless as to be incapable of serving as authority figures? How can kids learn about adult responsibilities, about the dangers and rewards of power, if they can't even witness the adults in their own homes wrestle with that responsibility. But today's parents aren't wrestling with the challenge. They're fish, flopping around on the mat, just waiting to be pinned so they can go sit back on the bench and keep drinking and playing golf.

As parents wimpily scurry farther away from being... well, parents, teachers and school administrators find themselves having to play detective, mediator and lawyer, all for bargain-basement pay.

Oh, and add one more role: armchair psychologist.

Not only are they under the gun to investigate thorny legal and disciplinary issues they can't even be sure they're allowed to investigate, they now find themselves deciding whether kids should have best friends.

Yes, there is now a debate amongst psychologists and educators whether it's healthy for kids to have best friends.

Far better, it seems, to have numerous shallow and marginally-meaningful relationships. You know, because the history of literature is rampant with kids who had best friends and were absolutely miserable.

Meanwhile, as schools get bogged down with having to play all these different roles, they are, far too often, failing to serve in their primary and original role: F#*KING TEACHING KIDS, LIKE, SCHOOL S*#T. It's not remotely fair for us to ask that of them, is it? When they're so busy doing so many other things that weren't ever supposed to be in the job description in the first place?

Teachers. Parents. Neither seem capable of focusing on the most important part of the jobs their titles imply.

The biggest difference: Teachers don't have much choice.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Postcard From The Road

Bruce Hornsby and the Range--"The Way It Is" (mp3)

I don't know about you, but my mental health requires that I get on the road from time to time, perhaps even as much as is affordable. This has not been a good year for that. Sometimes circumstances simply work against.

But, finally, I did get out of town this weekend, a 60-hour whirlwhind visit to Charleston, South Carolina, a place I'd never been. It was a conflicted visit of contrasts, and, therefore, the perfect visit.

We stayed in the condo of a family with 5-6 homes. Like John McCain, this family has more homes than even their closest relatives can quite keep track of. There's this "oh, yeah" thing that keeps kicking in, as in, "Oh, yeah, they also have a house in ___________ ." But relevant to our discussion, they have a condo in Charleston at one of the toniest addresses in town, and we were fortunate enough to stay there.

That address, of course, was centrally-located within "Whiteyville," our family description for that part or those parts of town where the white and reasonably-wealthy have set themselves up for the best living and for a local flavor that is highly-dependent on adapting the customs and cuisines of one or more other races.

Charleston is classic in this regard. The main tourist area consists of fine, often colonial, homes, streets, shops, and restaurants that all cater to the white resident and the white tourist. Given that it's the 21st century, others are welcome to share in the cleanliness and safety of this area, but their numbers among the visitors were small when we were there.

Modern-day Charleston (like, it pains me to say, modern-day New Orleans) offers a kind of living history that doesn't dwell on the integral nature of its slave-centered past. You see the classic homes, even a place where Washington was once entertained, you shop in a main street turned into the mall you left back home, you eat classic, low-country dishes that come from the Gullahs and other blacks who populated the area, but you eat them in upscale, air-conditioned comfort. You travel by boat out to Fort Sumter, a terrific national park by the way, and in your reintroduction to the start of the Civil War, you are only reminded very occasionally that hundreds of slaves were also hauled out to that granite-enforced sandbar to reinforce the walls against potential attack, once the South took control of the fort. You see the attacker of the fort, General P.T. Beauregard's picture displayed much more prominently than the defender, Major William Anderson.

But these are all "Oh, wells" in the context of a vacation to a beautiful, casual summer city at the height of summer when the girls and women all wear sundresses and the hospitality is unparalleled.

Unless you're a food idiot, like me.

Because I go to Charleston wanting the best of their food, and everyone I'm with knows it and tries to accomodate me, and so we eat at some incredible places--transcendent shrimp and grits at the Hominy Grill, she-crab soup to die for at High Cotton, authentic Southern cuisine at Jestine's Kitchen. But me, the snob, the educator, the reader, the educated also wants that best fried shrimp in the city that he's read about.

So we have to travel beyond even the tenuous boundaries of Whiteyville to the real Charleston.

We seek out a place called Dave's Carry-Out. To get to Dave's, you have to color outside of the lines. It sits on a corner with no other stores around, no street traffic of hungry tourists, in a space that used to be a hairdresser. It is a non-descript building with a non-descript sign. Inside, there are almost no decorations--a couple of cheap, mismatched tables and chairs, a long wood bench with a cushion on part of it, a few extra chairs around, an old television playing in the corner. There are no signs anywhere for anything. And it is clean, the most noticeably clean restaurant you've ever been in.

There is only one menu, which the owner hands you when you walk in. There is that momentary awkwardness that you always experience when you are the only white people in an all-black establishment. You realize quickly that you are the awkward ones; everything around you proceeds as usual. The girls sitting on those chairs that you think are waiting for their order are only hanging out, the guy eating chicken wings at the counter doesn't give you a glance. For the ridiculously-low price of $7 each, you order two fried shrimp dinners, one with fries, one with chicken perloo rice. And you wait in that same kind of awkwardness because there's no clear place where you're supposed to sit and nothing to do and you aren't quite sure how the transaction, the exchange of money and food will work. Eat in or carry out, your food will come in a styrofoam container.

My wife notices, on the wall, tastefully framed, an article about Dave's and another soul food place, a quietly-scathing article about how the places like these that serve the authentic food of the area have been pushed away, how the main tourist restaurants have adapted and assimilated these kinds of foods to give visitors a taste of the traditions of Charleston. The article reminds us that places and people like this do what they have always had to do--take the cheapest foods and make them taste delicious.

My wife tells the owner, though I don't think I ever said it, "My husband says you make the best food in the city." "I do," he replies.

But then the shrimp comes, and while we thought we would take it back, when we smell it, we don't want to wait until we return to the condo, so we eat outside on the trunk of the car, three white folks in a black neighborhood, clustered around a Camry, gorging on the best fried shrimp we've ever tasted, dipped only in perfect tartar sauce, sharing a fork to dig out pieces of chicken to eat with the perloo rice. The first bite is no big deal, but then your brain tells you, "Hey, that was pretty good," and pretty soon you're fighting for the fork and shoveling it in. We eat it so fast that in minutes it's over and we just keep looking at each other and saying, "Man."

Simple, authentic food mastered over generations, far away from the white tablecloths of East Bay Drive.

This is in no way intended to be an attack on Charleston. It's a beautiful little city and no different from any place else in 2010, when we all want to think that we have moved beyond our pasts. But I get to see Charleston as a first timer, with the eyes of an outsider, and that is the beauty of travel. If you stay where you live all of the time, you forget about what's been buried there. If you ever knew.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Viva Sport! And Chelada!

Can't Promise You the World - Drivin' N' Cryin' (mp3)

When I turned on SportsCenter tonight, I fully expected a lead story about some level of steeplechase accomplishment never before imagined. Like, maybe one of the horses actually flew. Wednesday, June 23, should go down in American sports as one of the most randomly awesome and improbable days in its storied history, a day when a stunning percentage of our citizenry actually gave enough of a shit about soccer and tennis to waste water cooler time and barstool time discussing them.

GOOOOOOOOALLLLLLLL!!!!

In the morning, the US soccer team decided to prove every last soccer-hater wrong by delivering a match that had every possible bit of drama and tension one could hope for in sport, capped off by the kind of mind-boggling end-of-game finish that required multiple replays and heavy rubbing of eyes just to accept its reality. The US? Score in the waning injury time minutes of the World Cup?? Inconceivable!!

One of the best reasons to love sports is not to admire skill or physique, but because it provides us with the fodder for conversation and togetherness that doesn't involve phrases like "oil spill" or "Middle East conflict." To be in a bar -- or let's just call it a "pub" when we're watching soccer -- for the most dramatic World Cup match in the un-storied history of US futbol was an honor, an exquisite privilege. This pub is of modest size, accommodates folks of all political persuasions, and serves tasty vittles. It even had a special order of Cheladas* on ice for the bleary-eyed idiots who felt courageous.

In a town like Chattanooga, few sporting moments can so thoroughly unite everyone in a bar as international competition, and few international competitions get spirited and devoted viewers in America quite like the World Cup. (Oh, don't we all miss the days when we could cheer on Ted Turner's yachts in the America's Cup...)

Come to think of it, why is it always a CUP? Shouldn't we call it a "grail"? Doesn't that sound so much more kick-ass? "The World Grail." I need to patent that one before someone else gets rich off it.

Anyway, a local news station had a videographer stationed at the pub where the BOTG crew, along with several family members and co-workers, watched the game. Although neither of us are stars in this video, we have cameo appearances, and it gives you a sense of just how awesome the experience of watching the match in a packed pub can be:



[NOTE: If you've never met me before, then... um... I'm the guy in the had and red shirt who raises his hands up at the bar right at the beginning of the video.]

A THREE-DAY TENNIS MATCH...?

As the day progressed, and the thrill of America's successful snatch of victory from the razor-jaws of defeat began to soften a bit, another story started bubbling into conversations both online and around offices. Two no-name dudes at Wimbledon were engaged in the Longest Tennis Match in History.

I just followed this story in text form from my office. Friends were texting me updates to the score -- 43-44!! 51-51!! 57-56!! -- and more people were piling onto the curiosity bandwagon as the day went on. In some sense, the fascination here was not with the sport and not with the players, but with the mere spectacle. It's sport's version of The Bearded Lady, a freakish oddity from which your eyes cannot reasonably turn away.

And it will continue. Tomorrow morning. The third calendar date over which this one single match has progressed.

Sports can indeed be awesome. Even shit like steeplechase.

* -- "Chelada" is just the fancy way to say "Poor Man's Bloody Mary."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shopping with Bob, once again

"People pay for music these days?" --a friend


Here's how music can work: you go to hear a band you haven't heard, you like the band, you go and buy some of their music.

Here's how music can work: you hear a lot of buzz about an upcoming release, you check out a few songs, you are intrigued, you buy some songs.

Here's how music can work: you have a song from 40 years ago come into your head, you realize that you miss the song, so you track it down and get it.

Here's how music can work: an artist whom you haven't seen in a long time, whom you haven't had a chance to see, begins releasing a variety of live shows, and you reacquaint yourself with what he has been up to.

Here's how music can work: when they were young, you exposed your children to a lot of different kinds of music; now that they are grown, they return the favor and you hear some music that you'd never had discovered on your own that you really like.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that my love affair with eMusic continues. Six bucks ($5.99 actually) gets me 12 songs a month, plus I bought one of their value packs that got me another 40 songs for about 40 cents a song, and I've been using it to add to the ever-growing Ipod summer mix. Here are some of the highlights:


Tab Benoit--"Lost In Your Lovin'(live)" (mp3)

After seeing a scorching live show from Mr. Benoit at Riverbend, I owned 24 of his songs the next day. I have a friend who continues on a mission to find the next Stevie Ray Vaughn and is continually disappointed by the next generation of white blues shredders, and I admit to sharing a somewhat less-consuming desire to find a great blues guitarist whom I haven't heard. But now I know that man is Benoit. Playing in a style that blends blues, r + b, and Cajun influences, he makes the blues fun again. Right now, I can't think of a better live show I've seen on a hot, hot summer night. The song I've chosen kicks of with these memorable lyrics:

She's got a bad way of doin' me good,
I can't help myself.


The National--"Conversation 16" (mp3)

Some critics and listeners are apparently befuddled by the popularity of The National. I'm not. They sing damn good songs with memorable melodies and mysterious lyrics. When has that not been a recipe for success (think R.E.M.). "Conversation 16" starts with two very pretty stanzas that open with

I think the kids are in trouble
I don't know what all the troubles are for

before morphing into different melodies for the second half of the song, which dwells on the memorable, repeated line, "I was afraid I'd eat your brains."


Hot Tuna--"New Song (For The Morning) (live 2003)" (mp3)

Jorma Kaukonen has always been one of my guitar heroes, especially on the acoustic. Splitting from the Jefferson Airplane was the best decision he and bassist Jack Casady ever made, since it freed them to pursue a sound that blended traditional blues and roots music with some of the wildest electric music ever played. The band seems to play mostly acoustic now, and it has been good to check back in with them. "New Song (For The Morning)" was one of my favorites from their very first album, and it is good to hear them revisit it as part of this very good live show from 2003. I'm not sure it's a CD, per say, may only be available from sites like eMusic.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young--"Almost Cut My Hair" (mp3)

One of the top contenders for the most outrageously-glorious hippie songs ever written, "Almost Cut My Hair" deserves a spot in the post for both the blistering guitar interplay between Stills and Young and for Crosby's impassioned lyrics:

Almost cut my hair
It happened just the other day
It was gettin' kinda long
I coulda said it was in my way
But I didn't and I wonder why
I guess I feel like letting my freak flag fly

God, I love those lyrics. A fresh listen will remind you that Crosby is absolutely singing this from the heart with pure conviction. If you've never felt like letting your freak flag fly, maybe there's still time.

Colin Meloy--"We Both Go Down Together (live)" (mp3)

I've enjoyed the occasional Decemberists' song here or there over the past few years, especially "The Crane Wife" and "16 Military Wives," but I was intrigued when I stumbled across the singer's solo show on eMusic. The typical Decemberist song seems to be so weighty and even melodramatic, so there was something refreshing about hearing some of them stripped down and presented like this. I like Meloy's stage presence, too. It sounds like he doesn't take himself to seriously.

I've bought some good stuff this year so far; I hope you enjoy hearing this little sampling and that it sends you off on your own searches.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rumors, Details, and Sex on a Picnic Table

Clumsy - Our Lady Peace (mp3)
Deny All - Bettie Serveert (mp3)

I'm in a dentist's office. The faux-leather chair is reclined, and the blood is slowly pooling in my skull, and that light, brighter than a thousand suns, burns into my mouth.

My dentist is a highly-intelligent and beautiful wife and mother who has somehow managed to hold onto every ounce of her attractiveness as she approaches 40. Her skin seems a little less soft, her face a bit more wizened, but she got that young fire in her eyes, with a mighty impressive figure and modest but sharp taste in clothing. And oh yeah, she's a kick-ass dentist.

Yet, try as I might, here's the image that inevitably flashes into my mind: her, 17 years of age and a junior in high school, lying back on a wooden picnic table at a popular local Chattanooga park, her knees dangling off the edge, her feet hovering in open space above the dirt and grass, her skirt up around her waist and spread across the planks like a disheveled too-small tablecloth. And a senior at my school, a year older than us, a popular and athletic king of the hill, pushing himself into her.

In most of my recreations of this moment, the senior boy is looking around in some twisted hope that someone can be a witness to this moment, so that when he brags about this moment over and over for friends and classmates, he can talk about the person or people who saw it with their own eyes. I imagine him, on the verge of orgasm, holding up a Joe Namath finger of victory, stoking the imagined enthralled fans surrounding the table in his moment of sexual triumph.

Of all the rumors and tales of sexual escapades from my high school years, this one is easily the most salient. We didn't have tales of group sex or fantasy blowjob drafts back in the late '80s, when getting a mere one blow job in a night was plenty impresive, so having sex on a picnic table in lingering daylight with one of our sister school's most stunning students was an otherworldly tale of studliness.

I once overheard the senior in question regaling his friends with the details. I then heard it a dozen or so more times as the story became hallway legend, gaining additional details, reaching new heights of the fantastical.

From day one, I doubted this story. One of my closest friends in high school helped out in our athletic training room in the afternoons, and she was constantly the subject of sex tales. She gave blow jobs in the closet. She would jerk you off while she wrapped your ankle. Tales that I knew to be untrue, but they got shared and passed around as factual as if they'd been etched into a chapter of the Bible.

That's what boys do. We talk. We sit round proverbial campfires and tell each other tales of the epic conquering sexual hero. It's as old as Beowulf.

Even when she was 17 and a rumored slut, my dentist wanted to be a dentist. Hell, I wrote it down in my journal. We had a conversation one time -- and all conversations with females of her caliber were recorded and immortalized in my journals for posterity -- where she talked about how much she valued clean, straight teeth. She'd known early in her life that she was going to be a dentist, she said. I remember keeping my mouth closed and smiling, hoping to hide the five dozen fillings in my mouth, suffering painful regret from so insufficiently and inconsistently brushing my teeth in my youth, knowing those cavities were a guaranteed barrier to her falling in love with me. (As if that was the singular preventing factor...)

So of course, when I found out she had moved back to Chattanooga and opened an office with her dentist husband (natch), I signed up as her patient. She'd always been brilliant; she'd always known what she wanted to do as a profession; she was hot. That, my friends, is a perfect combination of motivations for picking your dentist. It's a nice reward of convenience that her husband is a swell guy and a great dentist as well, since he attends to patients 80% of the time, now that she mostly stays home with their daughter.

I remember finding out she was pregnant. During my cleaning, the hygienist said, "It's really brave of her, having this baby." I shrugged and made what limited sounds I could with her fist in my mouth.

"You know, with her having Cystic Fibrosis and all." My brow furrowed and I made more gutteral sounds.

"She said she never even expected to see 20, much less get married and have a career. They didn't even think she could get pregnant in the first place." (More gutteral acknowledgments.) "So, you know, when they did, it just seemed like life was giving her a chance she couldn't pass up."

I don't know whether my dentist got laid on a picnic table when she was 17. But I do know this. If I was 17 years old, and I'd already accepted that I might never see 20, and I knew what kind of potential I might see if only I wasn't saddled with a debilitating and often-fatal hereditary disease, I think I might well be inclined to screw just about anything I could get my hands on. I might be inclined to drink, smoke, bungee jump, skydive, ski jump... anything and everything risky and life-affirming I could find. Because my dentist was cool and attractive, she just so happened to date cool and attractive studs.

And if -- IF -- they found themselves in flagrante delicto, horizontal or vertical or diagonal on a picnic table, the event takes a different meaning. Suddenly that moment becomes about her, not him, about savoring a precious (if scandalous) opportunity, not about a boy getting a story to tell the school.

I love my dentist because she provides me just one more reminder that the details we don't know about the people we encounter every day create such a complex and wondrous story, and even just a glimpse of those secret details can alter our perceptions and opinions, can engender sympathy and understanding, bring us closer together.

It's a shame we need those details. It's a shame we can't just know those details are out there, none of our business, but ready to explain so much about so many people.

Monday, June 21, 2010

How My Bed-Roaming Tendencies Saved My Family (or why you should lock the door to your deck after you finish grilling for the night)


I have a hard time sleeping in one place, especially in the summer. If I get too hot, I'm outta there. If I get uncomfortable, my half-asleep mind lingers over the various aspects of my discomfort until I get up and do something about it. My family knows this. They know that any bed is fair game, especially if they're out of town or at college.

So, last night, I'm in the den. I rarely sleep in the den. Not that the couch there isn't comfortable. It is. It's top notch. But I just usually tend toward either the top floor or the basement. But last night it was the den. I've been having some allergy issues and I just kind of camped out there. Got up about 2:20AM for some water.

Around 3AM, I could tell that someone else was up , too. My wife, the lawyer, has restless nights as well, so she may end up on the computer in the kitchen reading The New York Times at 4AM some nights. I could hear her creaking around in the dining room, but I couldn't figure out why I didn't hear her come down the stairs. I blamed that on the Benadryl.

Then she creaked towards the den. I saw a hand come in from behind the door and feel for the light switch. The hand kept feeling for the light switch that we had taken out. Everyone knows that light switch has been gone for years. But wait. Then a head appeared. A male.

"Help!" I yelled, as I rolled off the couch.

"You better not say anything," he said.

"Help!" I yelled, by the point at the door of the den. I could see him retreating into the dining room, where another man was coming toward him. I couldn't hear what they said because I was running up the stairs and my wife was yelling "What's wrong?" and I was yelling "Intruders in the house! Get in the bedroom and lock the door!"

The two men disappeared into the kitchen. At the top of the stairs, I saw my two children emerging groggily from their rooms and running into the master bedroom. The door closed and locked, leaving me and Taco, the wonder chihuahua, in the hallway. He had not been the effective watchdog I had expected, and seemed to take it as a personal affront that he had not been allowed into the locked room.

I could hear my family in there talking, worrying, calling 911. I stood at the landing, waiting to see if the men were going to come up. I did not want the four of us trapped in that bedroom without knowing what's outside unless we had to. Taco continued to whimper and claw at the bedroom door.

I stood silently, no pants, no glasses, no weapon, listening to the sounds of the house, not sure if they were coming from the bedroom, the kitchen, the basement. I stood for several minutes. I thought I could hear police sirens eventually, but wasn't sure, and then they stopped.

Then I was sure I could hear noises downstairs and prepared to make a beeline for the bedroom. Then I saw the flashlights in the hallway below me and yelled, "Who is it?"

"East Ridge police," came the answer. They had been fast. I was grateful. When I got downstairs, their guns were drawn as they searched the house, and then the barrage of questions began.

My description was useless: young African-American men, maybe one wearing something orange, maybe one with his face partially covered, about my height, short hair, no visible weapons. I had seen only a flash of each one without my glasses on.

Still, the police continued their questioning and searching. They thought they had found a viable fingerprint or two, so we waited for the detective to come dust those spots. We all engaged in fractured conversations involving guns, break-ins, dogs, our lack of cash, things we thought had been stolen that weren't, which way the men came in, which way they left, weak doors, unlocked doors, security systems, my use of the word "intruders" (what do you say? Robbers? Thieves? Burglars? Crooks?), the safety of the neighborhood.

Though it only happened nine hours ago, I have replayed it all many times, especially the "what ifs." Had I been sleeping upstairs, we never would have heard them until they came up. Had I been sleeping in the basement, I would have assumed the noises were a family member and never given them another thought, rolled over and gone back to bed. But, for some reason, last night I choose the red couch in the den. Only the surprise that created stands between us and the things we'd rather not ponder.

But about 5AM, we triple-bolted the door to the deck, I moved the refrigerator in front of the back door in the basement, I bolted the front door and took up residence on the couch in the living room, and we tried to go to sleep.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Let's Play SCRUPLES!

Always Love - Addison Road (mp3)
Suffering - Satchel (mp3)

Tom Hanley and Lauren McGee got married in an Indianapolis ER. Their wedding party was in a serious car accident mere hours before their scheduled wedding. One of the groomsmen was pronounced dead on the scene. Other members of the wedding party suffered minor injuries. For reasons we might never truly understand, the couple, both in their early 20s, chose to go through with their wedding that evening in the hospital. Instead of a reception, they held a prayer service for their fallen friend.

If you can read that AOL report on these events without getting at least a little bit misty, then bully for you. Damn thing rips me apart. I've read the story at least six or seven times now, and although I don't drench my keyboard with tears, I find myself doing the whole jerky-breathing and sniffly thing.

Before we play Scruples, you need to go read it. Otherwise you won't be emotionally invested enough to play properly. So grab a few Kleenex and read, and then come back after you've collected yourself. Go ahead. The rest of us will wait for you.

(Insert Jeopardy music here)

Scruples. Remember that game? We played it a lot in our church youth group when I was a teenager, and lots of kids in the group would lie their asses off about what they would or wouldn't do. I mean, the "right" answers were usually pretty obvious.

Something about being presented with a highly imperfect, emotionally-charged scenario and having to come down on one side or another of that situation makes for fascinating internal drama and great discussions. So it should be no surprise that a story at The Frisky last week received 42 comments covering the gamut of reactions.

"What should they have done: get married or postpone?"

It probably says more about me than about those who commented that the level and extremity in some of their judgments really bothered me. It probably speaks to my namby-pamby relativist nature that, because I can't possibly know all the details and explanations for their decision to get married in that emergency room, I don't feel comfortable saying whether it was right or wrong.

Maybe that dead groomsman's parents told them to get married because that's what he would have wanted. Or maybe they knew that, no matter how long they postponed their wedding, the day would always carry that very heavy cloud of tragedy and sadness, that the only way out was through. Maybe they were in shock. Maybe... Lots of maybes. Few facts.

I've got plenty of theories. They involve the circle of life, and symmetry, and sex, and friendship. And all of those theories say that what they did, getting married in the ER like that, had to be damn near impossible to pull off, but it was the best of the pathetic and awful options.

How horrifying, if they postponed that wedding, and then one of them went through some serious level of guilt or panic or whatever, and next thing you know, they break off their engagement? Next thing you know, they wake up and realize their good friend died in a car crash for two people who never even ended up getting married. Perhaps it's selfish, but such a chain of events would destroy me. It would f*** my psychological shizznat all up in ways I'd be afraid I might never recover.

So here's to emergency room weddings. And here's to hoping none of y'all and no one you know or love ever has to contemplate that option.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What If

Marvin Gaye--"Mercy, Mercy Me (Lulu Rouge Remix) (mp3)

Round here, we've got people collecting boxes of spent batteries, blue trash bins for recycled paper, a fleet of ceramic mugs up by the teachers' coffee machine so that anyone in need of a cup of java can grab a mug and go and not have to use one of the styrofoam cups we used to stock by the case. It isn't much, perhaps, but it's something.

Out there, and the Bessie Smith Strut two days ago comes to mind, there are thousands of people (myself included, of course) drinking tens of thousands of beers and other drinks out of aluminum cans and plastic bottles, carrying thousands of styrofoam boxes and plates filled with ribs or barbecue, hot fish or tamales, and sending all of those drink and food containers straight into the trash.

We have to do something.

So here's a "what if." What if we just tackle fast food? What if we just tackle fast food drinks? What if we just tackle fast food drinks "to go."

Being able to get a drink "to go" should be a good thing. It gives you something to cool you off in a hot car. It gives you that extra cup of good coffee that will get you through a tough part of the morning. But it should be no more than one of the great conveniences of the modern world. It should be portable and properly-sized, reasonably unspillable and sturdy. But it doesn't need to end up on the side of a highway or in a trash dump somewhere.

So here's a "what if." What if all fast food to go cups were exactly the same size? The same standard shape? What if they all looked exactly the same? Do we really need all those different sizes? Do we really need to be able to order "The Bladder Buster?"

Sorry, Shrek. Sorry, Taco Bell. Sorry, Star Wars. Sorry, Coke. Coke. Coke.

Take a look at all of those stores in New York City selling coffee out of a standard paper cup. They seem to be doing fine without the advertising.

What if those uniform, non-descript, recycled or recyclable or both plastic cups were used as "to go" cups in every restaurant, fast food or even otherwise, in this country?

What if there were a system for turning one in and getting another one back that worked to the benefit of the consumer? What if when you pulled up to the drive through and returned the dirty cup already kicking around your car, you got a discount? What if your whole family of four had left their cups in the car kicking around and you turned them all back in? Maybe you'd get yours for free.

What if, when you were leaving a sit-down restaurant and asked for a "to go" cup, you had to pay a fee for that cup, to give it some value, to increase its chances of getting cycled back into the system? Of course, if you pulled the cup you already had out of your purse and handed that to your waiter or waitress, you'd get the new one free.

What if, on the front end, you only had to pay for one stinking, lousy plastic cup, but as long as you were part of the system and kept playing the game, that one purchase of a cup would serve you throughout all of these great United States?

All the fast food restaurants would be sharing, collecting, dispensing, washing, reusing the same massive set of plastic cups. Just like we do at home.

Nah, the more I think about it, the more it sounds like socialism to me. I want to protect my right to burn half of my Transformers cup with my lighter and float the rest of it down a creek. Nevermind.


By the way, the stripped-down remix of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me" is really worth a listen. Even if you know this song intimately, you will hear it with fresh ears. The original version is available on What's Going On? available at Itunes.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Observations from The Strut

Strut - Sheena Easton (mp3)
Strut - Cheetah Girls (mp3)

The Bessie Smith Strut is an annual Chattanooga tradition, a Monday around which all portions of The Noog community gather on Martin Luther King Boulevard to enjoy music, vendor grub, and beer all in the name of togetherness, drunkenness, and blues baby blues.

For the second straight year, I was bullied and intimidated into attending Chattanooga's largest annual no-admission event by my BOTG partner in crime, and that's why you've gotta love Bob.

Originally I'd planned to write something about vampires today, but you can't be all hungover from Strutting and then not write about The Strut. So here are some observations from this year's adventures:

WHERE ARE YOU DIAPER LADY?
Last year, a super-skinny black woman in a neon shimmery green matching bonnet and diaper hung out near us and danced almost as badly as she dressed. There was no such lady this year. The freak eye candy wasn't nearly as fun this year, although we did have one guy who looked like he'd been excommunicated from the Hari Krishnas, and a large number of people with their entire bodies covered with terrible tattoos. (No, I'm not saying tattoos are terrible; I'm saying that the tattoos covering these particular bodies were terrible.)

POLISH SAUSAGE IS DA BOMB
After four beers, and after standing in 93-degree heat (heat index: 101) for a couple of hours, very few food items would taste bad. I ordered a delicious Polish sausage and ate it so fast I had to convince myself it wasn't just a dream. Unfortunately, Bob forgot a very important rule of food purchases: Make sure your Polish Sausage isn't charred black to the core. In all my years of knowing him, I've never seen Bob react to a bite of food like he reacted to his first bite of that Polish Sausage. In fact, his reaction was almost exactly like the lady's reaction to her Whammy Burger at the3:32 mark of this clip from "Falling Down."



GOD IS WATCHING US... BUT FROM A SAFE DISTANCE
It's called "plausible deniability," and God wants it as much as anyone. He's definitely watching us, as Bette Midler insisted so many years ago in her cheesy awful song, but I think He stays at a distance more for His sake than for ours. At moments, being at the Strut reminds you why humanity is so cool. Then overweight redneck white men start showing up with signs and handing out cards explaining why we all shouldn't get along because God will smite those who don't worship Jesus exactly the way overweight redneck white men do.

IF IT WALKS LIKE A DUCK...
Chattanooga, for all the great reasons to enjoy this town, has suffered a little bit of a crime relapse lately, and especially in gang-related matters. We had a shooting in a downtown park a few months back where the police insisted it "wasn't gang-related" even though numerous bystanders observed that the conflict involved two different groups sporting two very distinct and consistent color choices in their clothing. Last night, the Strut ended with serious crowd panic and dispersal -- although I never heard a gunshot, someone familiar running past me said he did. As I hopped on my scooter to find my next bottle of water, I motored past nine young black males, all wearing either red shirts, red bandanas, or red belts. Lot of red. Now, with as little as I know about anything, particularly inner-city life, maybe I'm jumping to unfair conclusions to say it was members of a gang. Maybe they were a soccer team. Maybe they were all wearing Spain jerseys in anticipation of their World Cup match. Maybe they're volunteer firemen. But I'm gonna go with the theory that it was a gang.

TANK TOPS... A GUILTY PLEASURE
This one probably speaks for itself. I probably shouldn't make much of an effort to explain it further. They're kinda cheap and low-class, but my goodness they can look nice.

"ARE YOU GUYS GAY?"
Bob and I concluded our evening at a local dive where they were holding Trivia Night. After we proved ourselves marginally useful for one team of competitors, the crowd mostly died down, and Bob and I sat at the bar nursing the night's final beer. Some early 20s dude in a white button-down over a white wife-beater and carefully-manicured hair pulls up next to Bob with the tremendous introduction: "Are you guys gay?" Bob and I looked at one another and shrugged. If I recall, Bob's response was something like, "Maybe, but we have five children between us."

Point is, if some dude you've never met comes up to you and starts his conversation with that question, please don't let him sit down and destroy whatever conversation you were having with your not-gay friend of the same sex. Especially if the kid was home-schooled and looks like a mix between Ducky and Patrick Dempsey from Can't Buy Me Love.

Consider yourself warned.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I'm Into It!

Cracker and Leftover Salmon--"Get On This" (mp3)


Of the first 10 matches played during the 2010 World Cup, eight of them have unfolded in front of my eyes, in front of my television or computer or cellphone. I have seen significant portions of the other two. These are also the first soccer matches I have ever watched on television or other media (unless you count that show we watched in Korea that involved highlights of a series of goals being scored over and over and over while the Korean commentators did their best to be Chris Berman in Korean).

See, mere weeks, days, hours, or minutes before the tsunami of World Cup hype swept over all of us, I decided to "get into" the World Cup for the first time. I like to think I did it on my own, aided by an ever-growing enjoyment of watching my school's team play soccer and armed with the World Cup issue of Time magazine, which I took to lunch one day and read cover to cover. That served to get me very quickly up to speed on the big name players, the most promising teams, the current context of the sport both in and out of Africa. And off I went.

And now I'm hooked. And conversant. And anticipating continuing pleasure from this decision.

Typical comments from people who know me well:

1. "I don't know who you are."
2. "You mean you're going to watch them kick a ball around for two hours and hope that one of them goes in?"
3. "Dad, you're being annoying."

My latest revelation, in an ongoing series of revelations about adulthood, is that, sure, life is still random, improbably, ridiculously concidental or arbitrary, but at some point we realize the power of our own intentionality.

We can simply decide to pursue something, large or small, that we've never been interested in before, and we don't have to have any previous inclination towards it. I used to think that a passion, or even a passing fancy, had to develop naturally, organically, as a matter of course. That always at the back of it, whatever it was, there had to be a kind of inspiration, a muse. I thought that we couldn't will ourselves to change, to love someone, to become something that we weren't without an overriding sense of it being supposed to happen. Now, perhaps because, as Marvell wrote, "at my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near," I think I can make a decision to do something both immediately and persuasively on something as little as a whim or as much as a cause.

I contrast this with my teenage years, when I asked out a girl simply because she sat next to me in driver's ed all summer, when I started to like David Bowie's music simply because my brother got tired of him and left all his records when he went to college, when where we ate or drank on any given weekend evening were determined by whether a stoplight was green or red as much as anything else. I tried this because my friends tried it. I went to that because there was an extra ticket.

Not that there's anything wrong with allowing things to happen by chance. Charting out a romantic path designed to end up with a spouse determined by a carefully-selected set of criteria could border on the pathological.

But there's also nothing wrong with a later-life decision to become a reader, as a friend of mine did, or to take up canning, as I did, or to switch political parties just to get a sense of the other side of the arguments or to jump ship to a new career or a new location.

A sudden interest or passion will, of course, not sit well with some of those we know. It is Emerson, as always, who reminds us of this circumstance: "[T]he eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them."

Why? Well, think about it. New interests, new directions can lead to new acquaintances and associations, and there is nothing more threatening to those who already know us and have established our place in their lives than to think that the balance of that applecart might be upset.

In my simple example, if I go gung-ho for soccer, then I am, perhaps, more inclined to spend time with and to put my emotional energy into those who also share that interest. And there are only so many hours in the day. And that is threatening. When we will ourselves into some new passion, it is almost as if we are suggesting to those who know us, either get on board or get left behind. In my simple soccer example, this is neither likely nor a particularly serious concern. But, when we go in some new direction of greater import, feelings, no doubt, will be hurt.

Careful readers of this blog might be tempted to juxtapose this post with the one I wrote on narcissism a few weeks ago. Are that critique and this affirmation two sides of the same coin?

I'd like to ponder that, but Italy is playing Paraguay.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Something Here As Strong As Life

Because RUSH isn't too keen on their music being played or shared, this post will be music-free.

The thing about love is, it's often easy for us to lose sight of why we fell in love in the first place. We can easily lose sight of love's origins, of its growth and maturation, of its sustaining power.

I was 10 when I had my first date with Rush. I wrote a little about it in a post about them back in November 2008.

As with most childhood romances, the bloom long fell off this rose. I got older. My musical passions and interests expanded. By the time I was in college, I would only begrudgingly, out of some odd sense of obligation, admit Rush was my Favorite Band of All Time, and then only if asked a direct question. I wasn't ashamed of my geeky love of a geeky band; rather, I just wasn't sure I loved 'em as much as I once did.

Our childhood loves may ebb and fade, but we tend to hold onto them nonetheless. Even if I didn't love Rush with the unblinking naive passion of my tween years, I always felt like I owed them my loyalty. They singularly shaped a lot of what I love and admire about music, about musicianship, about songwriting, about song craft.

It was out of this sense of begrudging loyalty -- and thanks to a reprieve of domestic obligations from my wife -- that I walked into the Chattanooga theater on Thursday night, June 10, to watch the One Night Only showing of Beyond the Lighted Stage, and I'm happy as hell I did. It reminded me why I loved the band so much to begin with, why I feel that sense of begrudging loyalty. And it rekindled some of that faded passion.



Some thoughts after seeing this amazing film:

(1) Rock Stars? Nerds? Same Diff. -- To become proficient enough at the craft of playing an instrument that one could play in a band and make songs people want to hear requires a willingness to lock oneself into isolated places constantly. Solid skill at guitar or drums or keyboard requires hundreds of hours where the distractions of people, television, food, whatever, mean less than getting better at playing that instrument. Sure, there are the musicians whose sole motivation was getting laid and making mad bling, but the ones who followed Rush, much like Neil and Geddy and Alex, were in it for the beauty and draw of the craft itself. Kirk Hammett of Metallica? Nerd. Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and Billy Corgan of the Pumpkins and Jack Black of The 'D? Nerds one and all. Gene Simmons of KISS? C'mon... obviously that guy was a huge nerd before he was overtaken by an egotism the likes of which the world has never again witnessed at such magnitude.

(2) We're Not All Schmoozers -- An oddly tender moment in the documentary occurs when the band tries to defend Neil Peart's well-known distaste for meeting his fans. We shouldn't expect our great musicians to necessarily be great politicians. I think I can trade away a few impersonable character flaws in exchange for a band that collectively -- apparently -- didn't screw a different groupie every night of the week. (Granted, Rush only had roughly 100 female fans over their entire career, but they apparently even elected not to sleep with them!)

(3) Lyrics Must Be Savored Like Wine -- I'm not much for wine. I don't get the whole nose and swish and all the details that go with being a connoisseur. But I do appreciate good writing. I love good poetry. And I actually care about lyrics. Unfortunately, in the hectic and distractable world in which I live, where music can only be enjoyed in a car or as background to other activities in the office or at home, it's sometimes difficult to truly appreciate the craft of songwriting. While Neil might be odd and nerdy, his lyrics can unquestionably verge on poetic at their best, and even the average songs are sharply and carefully constructed. "The Spirit of Radio" is a truly jaw-dropping song as lyrics go. (Although reading all those crappy interpretations of it can be a little disheartening.) I left that theater feeling obligated to find some more time to sit, earphones on, and just soak in the words like I used to 20 years ago, alone in my room with the record player on.

(4) Little Things Bring Amazing Joy -- It's just a nerdy prog-rock band. It's just a documentary of that band. I don't even listen to them a fraction as much as I used to. Yet I walked away from those ending credits with a kind of glee in my heart that makes people want to climb mountains. It was probably that fleeting but powerful feeling people get when they walk to the front of a Baptist church with all those other people giving their hearts, at least for that moment, to Jesus. Happiness usually comes when the bigger things fade back a little and the little things come to life, like a thick forest giving way briefly for sunlight to fall on a single precious flower.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Day the Peach Basket Died

Hope for the Hopeless - A Fine Frenzy (mp3)
Find You Dead - Letters to Cleo (mp3)

It somehow seems only fitting to follow up Bob's post yesterday with musings on John Wooden.

While I was busy trying to navigate the vomit-inducing highway to Boone, N.C., the Wizard of Westwood chose to retire from life, calling it a day at the nicely-rounded age of 99.

That night, the ritual late-night drunken debate between myself and my two in-law siblings centered around Tiger Woods. While I didn't begrudge Tiger his loss of income or popularity, I did say the onus is on our society to change what it expects of people in the spotlight. (Lest it be forgotten, I was a staunch -- and somewhat erroneous -- defender of Tiger when he first wrecked his SUV last year. I've adjusted my negative opinions of him, but continue to place equal blame with our culture.)

Bob's post yesterday about Polanski, and his earlier post about Bruce Springsteen's adulterous ways, and my mourning the death of the simple hero. I don't know how many times I've lamented our society's idolization of celebrities and athletes. When we place any fallible mortal on a pedestal, we're only creating a greater height from which they can fall. Deep down, we know it, but we don't care. We need our heroes, and we'll help craft them where they don't exist.

You gotta admire the Greeks for that, at least. Their gods were terribly flawed. Powerful, certainly, but flawed. In America, we expect all our gods to be flawless.

In my preferred universe, Tiger Woods would earn significant cash simply for being The Greatest Golfer of All Time. But the hundreds of millions in endorsements? The entire notion of celebrities endorsing products, values, whatever? It wouldn't happen.

What is undeniable, however, is how much more fun it is for people to talk about fallen idols than straight-laced boring ones. Like John Wooden.

The Wizard didn't make much off endorsements, but I'm sure he made a few extra bucks every now and then. Enough to buy Tiger a new driver on occasion.

I don't know everything about John Wooden's life. I don't know if he went his entire life without committing a sin. I don't know if the sins he committed were acceptable or unforgivable. I don't want to know everything; I know enough to admire the man, his career, the loyalty and love he engendered in almost everyone he met, and the values he seemed to espouse through actions as well as words.

Wooden actually seems like something we just don't hear much about anymore: A decent Christian man.

We hear plenty about Catholic priests and perverted Protestant preachers. We hear lots of people talk about God's wrath until they conveniently need His forgiveness for their own misdeeds. But just good decent people who admit to their faith in the glare of the public eye? That's a rare species.

As a UNC alum whose fanaticism about the importance of Dean Smith as a coach and person of tremendous character is beyond reasonable, I can also comfortably acknowledge that John Wooden is, as both a person and coach, Dean's equal if not his superior. (It hurts to even write that.)

Then there's the personal story that tugs at me.

Wooden's wife Nellie died on March 21, 1985. At the time of her death, they had been married 53 years. On the monthly anniversary of Nellie's death, every month, every year, for 25 years, Coach John Wooden would write his wife a letter. That's almost 300 love letters to a ghost. If it weren't such a testament to the depth and endurance of his love, it might well freak me out. But he didn't write those letters to impress me. And I'm sure he wouldn't give a flip whether anyone thought he was crazy for doing it.

Instead of a secret stash of kiddie porn or some secret meth lab in his basement, John Wooden was hiding love letters to the most important person in his life. Because it was none of our business, no matter how much it might have impressed us. How refreshing, that we discover something unknown yet touching about a man we can admire!

Apparently, good secrets about people still exist, and it gives me hope.

"You see, the truth is somewhere in between. It's wrong to turn people into idols. But it's also wrong to lose hope, to believe that we can't find good examples to inspire us," Wooden says in the interview linked above. "We need role models. ... Maybe role models are getting harder to find, these days. That doesn't mean that there aren't any worth finding."

Coach Wooden almost gives me reason to think maybe idolizing great and successful famous people isn't such a bad idea.

Almost.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Art From The Artist

Timbuk 3--"Welcome To The Human Race" (mp3)
Timbuk 3--"A Sinful Life" (mp3)

The old conundrum has reared its ugly head again: can or should we separate the art from the artist?

Case in point: last weekend, I went to see The Ghost Writer. Good movie, well-done, well-acted by the likes of Ewan MacGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Kim Catrall. I know I'm late to this party; it's showing at the cheap theater in town some 4 months after its initial release.

The problem is the movie was directed by.....................................Roman Polanski.

You remember Roman. Beautiful, young pregnant actress wife killed by members of the Charles Manson family as part of their California rampage in 1969. Polanski later accused of drugging and forcing sex upon (aka raping) a very young girl. He flees country to France rather than face charges. He produces a number of well-regarded movies over the past several decades. He is apparently able to move fairly freely about Europe and elsewhere, as long as he doesn't attempt to return to the United States. Except, the last time he tries it, he gets arrested. And now there is a major effort to extradite him to the United States so that he can face charges.

Directors and Hollywood-types who have tried to defend him have been raked over the coals in the press.

And probably with good reason: if you read the particulars of his actions with the girl, you would, no doubt, be disgusted with him as a human being. It's rape, it's pedophilia, it's sick and twisted and immoral. You may well wish that justice be served after all these many years.

And I think he's guilty, too. I don't feel the slightest need to try to defend or justify him. I'm willing to make that judgement, even in the land of innocent until one pleads guilty to a lesser charge.

But the issue here is his movies. People questioned my decision to see The Ghost Writer, as they have no doubt done with other people, given the plethora of boycott-related posts around the web. As they did when I went to see The Last Temptation of Christ at Eastgate mall back in the 80's and had to cross a picket line of Christians and klansmen to get to the ticket booth. Obviously, this film hasn't generated that kind of fervor. But still.

Is everyone who sees this movie, who acted in it, who worked on it, who promoted it, are they all complicit in Polanski's crime?
See, the problem I have is the timing. Today, there is a quite a stigma attached to Polanski because of the media coverage his arrest received last year. But those voices were silent, or at least relatively quiet, when Polanski had critical and/or commercial successes with movies like Tess, Frantic, or The Pianist. The latter even earned him the Academy Award for Best Director and a standing ovation at the Oscars.

And while I know that Hollywood can often display questionable morals and that I can criticize those morals as much as anyone, it's also possible that Hollywood, by its very nature, is skilled at separating the artist from his art, and so their applause was not for the rapist, but for the director.

They're the same person, though, right? Agreed. But aren't they just two extreme sides of everyone we know? We may not know anyone that famous and artistically-accomplished and we may not know anyone that depraved, but the fact is that we will give those we do know any number of breaks, allowing their plusses to outweigh their minuses. Maybe I shouldn't have seen The Ghost Writer, but if that were to be the case, I shouldn't have seen any of those other Polanski films either. It's not like my decision of whether or not to see a Polanski movie just got more ethical that it ever was. And should I not visit his earlier catalog either? Is it now wrong to revisit classics like Rosemary's Baby or Chinatown because they were directed by a tainted director, albeit one whose taint had not yet happened when those films were made?

On those days when I'm an asshole, does that fact negate everything I've ever done?

Anyway, I continue to work on this dilemna. And the movie was quite good. I recommend it.

Timbuk 3's brief reign in the mid-to-late 80's produced some well-recorded, catchy tunes. Available where mp3's are sold.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dark Come Soon

Dark Come Soon - Tegan & Sara (mp3)

Sometimes a song has a radar lock on your soul. It attaches its ivy tendrils to specific memories and experiences. Sometimes it digs into the soil of your past and grafts into the roots of childhood or teenage years, long before the song even existed, or long before you ever paid it much heed. It hits like those famed photon torpedoes into that tiny hole in the Death Star.

Lately, the song that has crept back up into my Billboard Hot Soul Top 10 is Tegan and Sara's "Dark Come Soon." It showed up on my Shuffle recently and has since been replayed a few dozen times.

Want a virtually guaranteed method of making yourself miserable? Do the right thing. Seriously, I can't think of many things, over the course of my life, that have resulted in greater misery, sadness or discomfort than walking the straight and narrow path in the face of temptation.

I'm not saying I've always managed to do the right thing. Not at all. I'm only saying that if you're under some impression that doing the right thing results in some happy ending movie where you get the girl, ride off on the white horse, cure the bully, avenge your parents, live happily ever after, or whatever, well, I'm here to burst your bubble.

While I can't proclaim to confidently know what their intent for this song was, its meaning for me has crystallized into every big gaping mineshaft of temptation I've encountered in my life, times when I was in personal torment and denied it or hid it from everyone around me. (Which is pretty much all of the times I've ever been tempted by anything.)

Dark, you can't come soon enough for me
Saved from one more day of misery
Everything I love, get back from me now
Everyone I love, I need you now

In times of temptation, days are marked by frustration, followed by a this strange sense of accomplishment when the day is done. One more day you've survived your own demons. One more square on the calendar you can X out, victorious over whatever the temptation or distraction. But good behavior in the face of temptation does this weird thing to your relationships. It's like the Joker has strapped a huge explosive device to you, and you desperately need someone to care enough for you to risk their lives and come defuse it. But you don't want to be the cause of the death of a loved one, or anyone for that matter, who tries in vain to defuse you only to be blown to tiny bits.

Don't forget a million miles from me
Safe, and another day can pass by me
Everything I love, get back from me now
Everyone I love, I need you now
So what? I lied, I lie to me, too (come on, come on)
So what? I lied, I lie to me, too (come on, come on)
So what?

Safe. And another day can pass by me. Get away from me before I explode. But... I really really need you near me.

And then the chorus comes in and kicks me in the gut, expressing the exact kind of process that worms its way through my mind. When confronted with the chance to do something wrong, or something taboo, our first instinct is to run away from it. But if we that temptation finds some way to grow like a weed through asphalt, we begin to create a new reality. We start telling ourselves whatever it is we need to hear to either stay away from the temptation or to justify succumbing. Sometimes we lie both ways. I can remember times when I told myself lies to keep me safe while at the same time telling myself lies to justify the act... just in case I eventually lost grip of my defenses and slipped. Sometimes, the angel and the devil on opposite shoulders are both just whispering different lies.

Hold out for the ones you know will love you
Hide out from the ones you know will love you, too

Doing the right thing almost always feels lonelier than succumbing. especially in the short run. Fight the temptations for those you love. Hide from them just in case you can't sustain, and hide for the shame of suffering the temptations to begin with.

Right to the edge, I'm barely there
Slow to make my move, I'm almost there
Everything I say, I say to me first
Everything I do, I do to me first
(So what?)
So what? I lied, I lie to me, too
(So what?)
So what? I lied, I lie to me, too

Everything I do, I do to me first. Every single time that couplet plays, it shakes me emotionally. I get all verklempt. Self-deception is, ultimately, the most sincere defense we have for our wrongdoings. Sure, it's ultimately an insufficient excuse -- that we're causing ourselves damage before we ever cause it to those around us, that we're lying to ourselves first before it spreads to our loved ones -- but it's all we've got. And when all you've got is a miserable defense that requires deceiving even yourself, the only thing you can do is keep hoping your days will end sooner rather than later.

It's Scylla and Carybdis. It's a rock and a hard place. It's a frying pan and a fire. It's turning right and turning wrong. Miserable places one and all. As WOPR/Joshua so wisely observed to Matthew Broderick, when it comes to temptation, "The only winning move is not to play." Easier said than done when your soul is at Defcon 2.

I'm glad I'm not there very often, and I haven't been there in a while -- and I'm honestly floored at how many times I was there in my teenage and younger years and didn't even really know it -- but I'm also grateful for songs like this that can take me to those memories, remind me of the pain that's there, and serve as occasional warning to do what I can to avoid going there again.